26 August 2017
Picture the scene. It was this year’s budget lockup and I was trying to keep my head down. I made the mistake of reading the speech that would be delivered in a few hours. Now these speeches are generally vacuous drivel, but this year’s really set the bar at a new low. Scott Morrison would be speaking as if he were a Labor politician.
“We must choose to guarantee the essential services that Australians rely on. We cannot underestimate just how important these services are to people. We must tackle cost-of-living pressures for Australians and their families. We cannot agree with those who say there is nothing that the government can do.”
My god, I thought; the Treasurer is our father in Canberra and he is here to look after us. His likely defence is that the focus groups made him say this.
If that weren’t bad enough, the next instalment came after the entrance of the Treasurer to our room in the lockup. When confronted by some awkward questions about the case for the major bank levy, he quoted the title of the song: Cry Me a River.
In other words, he simply didn’t care that the new impost was ill-considered and economically damaging. He couldn’t even outline a sensible rationale for seeking to rake in more than $6 billion in four years from the four big banks and the Macquarie Group. That the burden of the tax would be borne by customers, shareholders and workers was but a passing consideration for our caring father. But his flock — again thanks to those focus groups — was telling him they didn’t like the banks. The logic is that if you don’t like them, he will impose a whopping new tax on them.
The only way I could get the Treasurer’s preferred song out of my head was to impose another one. And it went like this: you’ve lost that liberal feeling / bring back that liberal feeling.
To my mind, this aptly sums up what has happened to the Turnbull government. It has abandoned support for liberal ideas; for the centrality of individual responsibility. Malcolm Turnbull and other senior ministers increasingly reject the importance of competition and choice as the means of ensuring consumers get the best deal. Instead, they (erroneously) think more government regulation, aggressive bullying of businesses and trammelling on legitimate commercial arrangements are the way forward.
There are many — too many — examples and I will go through some of them. But here’s an important general point: if the Liberal Party wants to turn its back on its principles — and I haven’t even mentioned its general embrace of higher taxes and its botched superannuation initiatives — then voters are likely to turn to the real deal when it comes to the rejection of free market economics and install Labor.
Labor’s embrace of big government, high taxes and more regulation is also a repudiation of the Hawke-Keating legacy. But, let’s face it, Labor can concoct a form of words that goes with its retreat from those halcyon days; think fairness, inequality, helping minority groups and the like.
These slogans play less well in the hands of members of the Coalition government even though some of them, including the Prime Minister, laughably think they can lay claim to that much-distorted adjective, fair.
So let’s go through some of the anti-Liberal policy initiatives the Turnbull government has implemented or is proposing to implement. Of course, the major bank levy is right up there as one of the most preposterous.
That the Treasurer could keep a straight face telling us that he was instructing the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission to ensure that the banks didn’t pass the levy on to their customers was a truly amazing sight. What does he thinks happen to taxes? Does he think that businesses absorb the GST?
And how does Morrison’s dubious intervention square with the Treasury’s modelling on the revenue that will be gained from the levy, firmly assuming it will be passed on to customers and therefore not affect the banks’ profits? Otherwise, the revenue from the normal company tax paid by the banks would be reduced, and we couldn’t have that.
It is almost impossible to list the new regulatory interventions affecting the banking sector, most of them simply costly and likely to prove ineffective. There are regulators falling over themselves to impose higher costs on the banks.
Arguably, the cost of all these new, ongoing intrusions — think, in particular, the absurd banking executive accountability regime — will be higher than the alternative of having a royal commission into banking, which for political reasons the Liberal Party has done everything to avoid.
Then we go to the energy space. Here the government makes the mistake of openly expressing its reservations for undertaking a series of extraordinary anti-market interventions but proceeding notwithstanding.
Consider the decision to restrict the export of gas for which there had been previous government approval. Or consider the government’s determination to remove the right of the transmission companies to appeal the decisions of the regulator, overriding the basis of good governance of regulated industries.
And then, willy-nilly, the government agreed to 49 of the 50 recommendations of the Finkel review on energy security, even though many of them are ill-conceived and add up to a new layer of costly regulation on a sector that is already overwhelmed by a labyrinth of complex and inconsistent rules and regulations.
And because we don’t have enough energy agencies — there are dozens if you add in the state-based ones — another will be added: the Energy Security Board.
There is also the truly bizarre decision of the Coalition government to support the entreaties of the Nationals to re-regulate the sugar industry in Queensland, turning its back on the previous difficult and expensive decision to remove the single desk selling arrangement in that industry.
And what about the Treasurer’s decision to refuse to lower the prohibitive tariff on imported second-hand cars even though there will be no local manufacturing in this country from the end of the year?
Evidently, regional car dealers and parts suppliers were able to pressure the government to reject this clearly pro-consumer decision. Note that the importation of relatively new second-hand cars is commonplace in New Zealand and other countries, and causes no problems at all. Instead, the Turnbull government’s motto is: rent-seekers, come on down.
During the week, a senior member of the Turnbull government texted me to ask why I was so angry about the government. I’m not angry; I’m just bitterly disappointed. If the Turnbull government ever had a chance of convincing the electorate that it could govern well, it needed to stick with the principles it inherited from the Howard years. And those principles involved commitment to individual responsibility, competition, choice, low taxation and getting government out of the way as much as possible. On all scores, this government has been a complete flop.
Let’s face it, telling the voters that the government is here to look after us will always end in tears. Disappointment, frustration, enfeeblement — these are the likeliest outcomes.
Emphasis added by Save Our Super